In the Coronavirus age (yes it’s just six months but seems like an age!) there are great challenges and no “re-opening” strategy seems to be perfect. Organizations can just try to do their best (be excellent) instead of trying to be perfect. The virus is invisible and thus it brings the “Excellence vs. Perfection” dilemma into sharp focus.
The “Excellence vs. Perfectionism” is a debate that is prominent in psychology Here is an article from Psychology Today that favors excellence over perfectionism. Brene Brown the “Vulnerability/Shame” guru puts it nicely in her interview with Oprah.
Our parents want us to be perfect, our teachers want us to be perfect, our spouse wants us to be perfect, we want our children to be perfect, at work the boss wants us to be perfect, colleagues want us to be perfect. Even friends want us to be perfect.
Or are these just our perception? If so, it is extremely limiting to our growth as individuals and companies. Here is why:
Excellence has a deadline Perfection is never ending: Think of your own social media behavior. Why do you hesitate to post something? Because you are worried about being judged. Most businesses keep trying to perfect their content and eventually it loses relevance. On the other hand, excellence is an internally focussed metric. You did your best and put it out there. One reason that journalists, TV writers are productive is because their job involves deadline. The show must air! The viewership and ratings may sometimes disappoint but the content is out there. On the other hand academics work on deadlines only for conferences. For journals, academics take a long time trying to perfect their work. The “blind peer review” of academic papers are ruthless and even Nobel Prize winners, as anonymous authors, are not spared ! But then the purpose of academic discourse is to advance science and you write up your research to try and convince your peers.
Excellence is internally focussed Perfection is externally focussed: The motivation for perfectionism is the fear of being criticised. Or the fear of ridicule. In short, “fear” drives perfectionism. Striving for excellence on the other hand, is competing with yourself for quality. If you do reach perfection by your own reckoning there is no room for improvement. You lose a learning orientation. In contrast, when you strive for excellence and do your best, you know that there is scope for improvement. You have a learning orientation.
Excellence has a Learning Orientation -Perfection is already perfect:By definition perfection is perfect! Organizations that have leaders who want “perfection” don’t admit failure or mistakes. Mistakes in anything, to anyone including themselves! This can lead to close mindedness at the organizational level. It goes away from a growth mindset and stops inter-departmental learning and communication. This in turn hinders innovation as this highly cited article by Calantone,Cavusgil and Zhao (2002) explains.
Excellence spurs innovation Perfection hinders innovation. As a striver for excellence you are ready to learn from all and improve. Innovation becomes possible as you are ready to experiment, learn and try again.Perfection is like the end of story. You get stuck on one “S” curve of innovation while new competitors come along with radically improved offerings.
To summarize, it’s far better for organizations and individuals to strive for excellence rather than try to be perfect. We do hope that the pandemic will be behind us soon.